Images / Words
Toronto, 1988, the official opening of the IRA's annual convention and Elliot Eisner was speaking. His address was remarkable for me in part for what he had to say but more so for the private experience I had during the address.
I was sitting by myself in the hall, lost in thought, but I was suddenly attentive when Eisner suggested the gospel writer had gotten it all wrong, "In the beginning, it was not the word. In the beginning was the image. From the image came the word." He went on to suggest that all human understandings begin that way, not with words but with images. Words come much later. Furthermore, words cannot be set apart from images in the development of understanding. We even speak of words having meaning when they "make sense."
"In the beginning was the image." I began to think of beginnings and images and words growing out of images and my Grandmother's face appeared to me. The mass of wrinkles, like cuneiform, writing the story of her life across her brow-those were the death of two of her children, these the loss of the farm, those from two world wars and a great depression.
There was my Grandfather sitting on the cot in the corner of the kitchen, his hands knitted together and looped around an uplifted knee to balance his weight as he slowly rocked back and forth. The sleeves of his plaid shirt were rolled up revealing the cuffs of the long underwear he wore in spite of the fact it was July. He and the old man sitting with him were talking partly in English, partly in Gaelic, about horses and people they knew. They were retelling their lives.
In a flash the words were there. To a background of Eisner (I was no longer aware of seeing him, I could just hear him like some disembodied voice in the head of a five year old, in that long ago kitchen). "Ideas are slippery things, they need words to anchor them to reality and they must be written down or they'll be lost."
The speech over, I hurried back to the hotel to write the poem in my journal. Ideas are slippery things. If you don't write them down, they become lost.
Some weeks later I was at my desk in school looking over my conference notes when I came across these two verses. I'm not sure what I thought of them but they did intrigue me. When I reread the second verse, I thought about my favorite book as a four year old- a story of a husky pup who, ignoring the prudent advice of his parents, is captured by wolves. Just as he is about to be killed, he's rescued by his father and the other adult huskies from his village. I remembered hearing that story so often that I could read it from memory. And yet, my memories of my first years of school are filled with frustration-I seemed to be unable to read with any degree of success.
I have very clear memories of my first years in school, of my teachers, of the classrooms, of most of the nearly thirty boys with whom I shared those first classes. The memories are sensory-the faces of my classmates, the smell of sneakers and wool mittens on overheated steam radiators, the sound of pointers tapping and beads clicking and the bell signaling a change in routine. But nowhere do I remember language growing out of these experiences.
I can't say that the teaching methods of that day were a failure, for, by all accounts my classmates and I learned to read and write sufficiently well to gain access to professional careers or jobs in some occupation or other. Most of us managed to stay in school.
However, I can't help but think something was missing. In the rich world of my preschool life in a large extended family there was no separate consideration of words and letters from the images that gave them shape. All words were meaning ladened, all communication was embedded in a full and rich context. Even the contextual considerations of story and story teller and circumstances of the telling were connected and added to the richness of the meaning and the memory.
In school everything was different-- the people were unfamiliar, the routine contrived. The language that was valued wasn't the same as at home. Even the stories didn't have the same purpose or intent and consequently didn't have the same impact.
There have always been stories in my children's house. Long before Eisner's address and that odd revisit to my Grandfather's house there were stories. From the time she was able to manage to hold a child under one arm and a book in her other hand my wife has read to our children. Long after they were able to read for themselves I continued to read to them. Even to this day, my older children who are now attending university will make an effort to be present once again to hear their favorite stories when I read them to their younger siblings. Just as the power of story, of metaphor and oral narrative, has contributed so much to my sense of language and literacy so, too, as the power of books, of stories shared and enjoyed contributed to my children's literacy.
And I have children who are of another house. Children who come to school with some expectation that they will learn to read, that they will gain access to the magic kingdom of books, that they will become full-fledged members of the literacy club with all the privileges and authority inherent in membership. Language and literacy have been a part of their lives for quite some time. For many, that experience will include books and stories. But for some it will not.
For all of these children success in school will be measured, at least in part, by the success they have with print. I know we have learned a great deal since the days of Tom and Betty and Susan. We have learned much about literacy and literacy development since the days when my grade one teacher had me draw boxes around words in the belief that configuration was important for word recognition.
We now know words come from strongly felt images. All my children have rich experiences to draw on, to find words for. The challenge facing me is to bridge between their private and public worlds-an important part of curriculum-to ground the school learning environment in the children's learning experiences, to provide opportunities for them to use words to explore the images of their lives, to help them anchor their slippery ideas before they are lost.
Martin MacDonald is a Principal in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
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